Throughout the night of Dec. 29, 2003, and into the next day a series of spectacular explosions at a burning magnesium recycling plant illuminated the snowy sky above this Cleveland suburb.
That snow, together with light rain, further complicated what was already a difficult situation for firefighters, said Garfield Heights Fire Chief Tony Collova. Burning magnesium reacts violently to water, producing great heat and a piercing white light. Monitor streams used to protect exposures had to be directed with great care. With a flame temperature exceeding 5,000? F, magnesium burns hot enough to break water down into its basic components, hydrogen and oxygen. That, in turn, feeds the fire rather than extinguishing it.
Garfield Heights, with a population of more than 31,000, is a 7?-square-mile bedroom community that neighbors the southeast side of Cleveland. With a muster of 46 firefighters, the Garfield Heights Fire Department fields 14 firefighters per shift, plus two who are assigned to work in the Fire Prevention Bureau. Personnel are split between two stations on opposite sides of town. Chief Collova and the captain in charge of training handle administration.
The magnesium processing and recycling plant, operating in Garfield Heights since 1950, was one of the largest of its type in the country. It is located on Chaincraft Road, a dead-end street that is approximately .7 miles long with 12 industrial occupancies. The street is located in the northern section of Garfield Heights in a setting lower than the surrounding areas. Pa
rt of the water supply on this industrial parkway has a grid system, with the rest on a dead-end main.
Located west of Chaincraft Road is a residential area consisting of apartments and homes. These structures are on top of an adjacent hillside approximately 80-to-100 feet in height and approximately 800 feet away. North, east and south of the incident are open areas, railroad tracks, businesses and homes.
GHFD responded to emergencies at the plant in the past, but nothing approaching the Dec. 29 incident.
The initial call came in at 3:01 p.m., activating a first alarm consisting of an engine and tower from Station No. 1 and a ladder and an advanced life support (ALS) rescue squad from Station No. 2. Eight firefighters responded from both stations.
"The dispatch office has 10 emergency lines," Chief Collova said. "According to the police, almost all ten lit up at once."
As the first responding units left the stations, the officer in charge, Capt. Tom Nemetz, ordered a second alarm from the area's Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS). It is a preplanned resource consisting of five alarms for additional firefighters and fire fighting equipment from nearby departments.
"Capt. Nemetz was responding with seven other firefighters," Chief Collova said. "The captain knew from the way the call came in that it involved magnesium and he would have enough challenges just setting up his sector and containing a major fire, so he called a second alarm that brings in two more pumpers, an aerial truck, a squad and an air truck."
Chief Collova was at a meeting at a hospital within the city and close to the plant when the first alarms sounded.
"I called over to fire dispatch to find out what we had," Collova said. "As I rounded the corner of the hospital looking north I could see the black smoke coming from the industrial area."
First responders arrived to find that fire had broken through the roof of the main plant building. Nemetz met with the plant manager and asked him to account for all employees. The plant manager assured him that everyone had been evacuated. He also confirmed that magnesium was involved.
GHFD policy is to designate the address side of a burning building as A sector. Capt. Nemetz established command on the A sector side of the fire. The first major exposure to protect was at the corner of the main building (A/D sector). Garfield Heights Tower 1 and Ladder 2 caught the hydrant in front of the main building (A sector) away from the original fire to protect exposures. Access to the industrial park from that direction was a narrow one-way street. Likewise, many of the buildings in the industrial park were separated only by narrow streets and alleys.
With the danger of applying water to burning magnesium in mind, the strategy was to attempt to contain the fire by protecting exposures. With the influx of personnel and equipment from nearby fire departments, Capt. Nemetz was able to position a tower, ladder, pumper and a squad at the A-B corner of the fire. Chief Collova arrived on the scene at about 3:15 p.m. and assumed command. Capt. Nemetz was immediately assigned to be operations officer.
"Capt. Nemetz already knew what initial strategy had been laid out because he did it and did a fine job," Chief Collova said. "He already knew who was on scene and what additional help had been called for." Staging and water supply officers were also assigned. Staging was established upwind in a parking lot of one of the occupancies.
During the initial stages of the fire the plant manager advised fire personnel on the status of product stored inside the building. Garfield Heights firefighters conduct preplanning to familiarize themselves with industrial occupancies within the city.
"A preplan includes good basic information," Chief Collova said. "But in an industrial setting many important factors can change overnight. Having the plant manager close by was a valuable asset."
The plant manager specifically warned Chief Collova about the next immediate D sector exposure. "He said 'Chief, you don't want the gray building right there to go,'" Collova said. It was a magnesium storage building about 200 feet long with a wooden roof. Only a narrow one-lane road separated that structure from the main building. Firefighters directed streams from the aerials to put water on the warehouse roof. The runoff between the buildings created a water curtain while keeping the water away from the burning magnesium.
Dealing with burning magnesium called for additional precautions to protect firefighters, Chief Collova said.
"Our monitors that we laid down were unmanned," Collova said. "Eventually, the aerial towers were unmanned also. I know it's an expensive piece of equipment to risk, but I'd rather lose that than lose a firefighter."
Radiant heat began taking its toll on the storage building exposure with smoke appearing near the roof. After checking to see that it was safe, a four-member entry team from the Maple Heights Fire Department moved in to set up an interior monitor. However, not long after they entered, heat began pushing darkening smoke out one of the openings, warning of a potential flashover.
"As soon as the smoke increased and the pressure started coming down we hit the air horns and the radios -- all entry team firefighters were ordered out! When they walked out, black smoke was pushing right behind them."
No sooner had the firefighters exited than there was popping inside close to where the entry team had been operating, Collova said.
"It wasn't an explosion like we had later that night, but it was enough to say 'We're out of here,'" Chief Collova said.
Firefighters fell back to new positions to protect the next threatened D sector exposures, including a company specializing in heat treatment of machine parts. Again, only a narrow street separated the fire from its nearest exposure. Fire operations were hampered by lack of room to maneuver large vehicles in the tight industrial park.
A water relay was set up to supply two aerials protecting this exposure. To supplement the hydrant at the A-B corner of the fire, two long lays were made to supply the pumpers and aerials in service in that area.
"The water demand to protect exposures was draining their pumps all the way down to 10 psi residual pressure," Chief Collova said. "They pumped all the water they could and still couldn't stop the heat treatment company from igniting and burning from one end to the other."
At this point, the only good news for firefighters was that due to the westerly wind other exposures were not immediately threatened. As a precaution, command ordered the fire dispatcher to contact rail companies to hold all trains on tracks in that direction. Equipment and personnel were then sent to protect businesses located on a main street east of the tracks. With mutual aid assistance, command was able to assign an aerial, pumper and rescue squad to each of the four sectors of the fire.
Public officials were mobilizing to help. Garfield Heights Mayor Thomas Longo, vacationing in Arizona, saw television news about the fire and immediately flew home. Cleveland Mayor Jane L. Campbell called personally to find out what her city could provide, then sent an assistant mayor to the scene. Cleveland Fire Chief Kevin G. Gerrity also responded in person, bringing an entire battalion. He also provided his haz mat team to run an air quality check.
"Garfield Heights shares a regional haz mat team with other fire departments located in the Chagrin/Southeast regions of Cuyahoga County," Chief Collova said. "Many of these firefighters were being utilized at the scene and when the Cleveland Fire Chief offered their team I jumped at the opportunity."
Ohio EPA and U.S. EPA were alerted and responded to conduct air quality checks of the entire area. The Cleveland Air Pollution Control Agency was also contacted. Aside from the effects of the intense fire, air monitoring became an issue because of sulfur dioxide stored on the site. Sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory damage if inhaled.
Thankfully, air quality remained at safe levels throughout the emergency. Regardless, medical advisories were issued by radio and television through the emergency operating center of the Cuyahoga County Emergency Management Agency. A creek near the plant and local sewers were checked for any hazardous material runoff by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.
Operations were now so wide spread that Chief Collova appointed three safety officers under the control of GHFD Capt. Mike Brasdovich and two hose relay officers.
"Firefighters from different departments were trained and so dedicated that whenever a chief officer would state we need to implement a certain objective the firefighters would just say 'We'll take care of it' and it was done," Collova said. "You just said 'Water relay officers, you've got to supplement your water supply' and it was done. If I said 'This is our sector A side,' I didn't have people saying 'What's he talking about? They just knew and went to work."
Along with the incident command system, all departments involved were well versed in the mutual aid box alarm system.
"It's not as if we had to instruct the dispatcher to call Maple Heights, Bedford, Parma Heights, then have her call back and say 'Parma's not available - what do I do now?" Collova said. "By saying 'strike a second box,' the dispatcher knows exactly what to do. They did a fabulous job." At the rate firefighters were being utilized, command was forced to strike additional boxes throughout the evening. The number of available personnel had to be monitored closely since each time a new box was struck departments had to respond from greater distances, increasing response time.
Concerned with the possibility of another incident in the city, Stations No. 1 and No. 2 were manned by Garfield Heights Fire Department off duty personnel with equipment from other mutual aid companies. This operation along with coordinating shelters for evacuees was controlled by GHFD Capt. Bill Horrigan.
Meanwhile, it started to snow.
"We saw the snow start to come down in the lights of the vehicles," Collova said. "As it came down, we started hearing popping sounds like firecrackers going off. We backed up and all of a sudden it started to rain. Then we heard and felt the booms from numerous explosions."It wasn't raining very hard. It was more like a spray, but it was enough to cause a reaction."
The continuous concussions that began with the snowfall broke windows as far as 800 feet away. With the increased threat of explosions, Collova ordered the evacuation of more than 500 homes and apartments in a residential area overlooking the industrial park. Police, firefighters and the public works department cooperated in conducting the evacuation. The city's main fire station and the local civic center served as evacuation centers in emergencies.
Firefighting is physically demanding work in challenging environments. Firefighters can become rapidly overheated, fluid depleted, and energy depleted. The Cleveland Fire Department brought a special vehicle that served as a rehab center for exhausted firefighters. The American Red Cross was also on hand, moving from sector to sector to provide refreshments for the firefighters as well as evacuees at the shelters.
One problem area that Chief Collova confronted involved radio communications between incident command and fire dispatch. He designated channel one (repeater channel) for fire dispatch, channel five for hose relay sector and GHFD fireground channel for operations (Simplex fireground channels). Even though extra dispatchers were called in, most of the communication to the command sector was through one dispatcher. The others took care of contacting needed agencies, answering routine calls and researching information for fire personnel.
"Even though we were dealing with three- to five-watt radios on Simplex channels at the scene and fire dispatch had a 35- to 40-watt radio at the dispatch office, she was still getting cut off more than anybody," Chief Collova said. "So eventually we put her on channel one talking to the communications officer inside the command post. Water supply was put on channel five and if you needed to contact somebody else, you used the cellular phones."
Also important was having someone such as the communications officer assigned to rotate batteries and keep hand-held radios at the scene operating.
One important break was that the command vehicle for that region of Cuyahoga County is stored at Station No. 1 in Garfield Heights. The 37-foot vehicle formerly served as an X-ray trailer for a hospital before being donated for emergency management use.
"It's divided into three sections," Chief Collova said. "The center section is for communications. The command post has seven different radios operating on four different bands. The center section also serves as a planning section with grease boards on the walls. The rear section is where you're able to meet with a company representative or whoever and discuss the situation. The front section serves as an operations area where you meet with other officials to go over strategy and tactics."
Keeping water away from the magnesium was becoming more difficult. Aside from snow and rain, concern was growing that water runoff from the protected exposures was flowing toward the fires. Another source of water under suspicion was broken water lines.
"You had restrooms, a locker room and drinking water throughout the plant," Collova said. "There was also running water for some of the industrial processes involved. Once that plumbing broke it might have added to the problem."
To make matters worse, water runoff from the fire streams was beginning to flood the low-lying areas surrounding the plant. At one point one of the relay pumpers was standing in water up to its tail pipe, threatening to stall the vehicle. Valley View Fire Department offered and responded with special pumps to drain the water. Command also contacted the Cuyahoga County Emergency Management Agency emergency operating center (EOC) requesting equipment with pumps to respond.
Then the EOC sent word that a wind shift could be expected sometime between 12:30 a.m. and 1 a.m. More evacuations would have to be ordered.
"Our emergency response guide called for an evacuation of at least 800 feet," Chief Collova said. "We evacuated approximately 2,600 feet, all the way to the next major intersection. But we exempted the hospital because it was obvious they weren't going to be able to pack a bag and leave with all their non-ambulatory patients. They would have to shelter-in-place." Marymount Hospital was appraised of the situation and activated their internal emergency plant, Collova said.
The biggest explosions of the evening came at about the same time. Trailers containing magnesium were stored in two separate parking lots at the recycling plant. The two trailers backed up to a loading dock on the A-B corner of the fire never ignited, Chief Collova said. However, fire did reach a trailer backed up to the building on the D sector side with spectacular results.
"When that thing blew it just rocked the stadium," Chief Collova said. "It blew twice. We had other trailers in the rear of the parking lot that were full of magnesium, so we put unmanned monitors there to protect them. They were never in direct heat from the fire but we backed up further out of safety concerns."
Companies southeast of the fire attempted to protect a 100-year-old, two-story, recently renovated office building. This structure was lost due to burning magnesium falling relentlessly on its roof. Forced to move their vehicles to a safer area, firefighters had no time to disconnect the supply lines. Instead, they used an axe to physically cut the hoses and free the vehicles. Since the only road out was blocked with fire and debris, firefighters had to drive the vehicles as far back as they could and leave on foot along the rail tracks east of the scene. Chief Lee Zmija of the Cuyahoga Heights Fire Department and GHFD Capt. Dan Kaminski were in charge of that operation.
As the explosions continued, large pieces of glowing steel could be seen flying hundreds of feet into the air. Personnel accountability reports (PAR) were conducted periodically throughout the incident. Eventually, the explosions subsided and the flames were brought under control by 4 a.m. About 12 hours later most of the fire crews at the scene had been released. The recycling company brought in an environmental hazards company soon after the disaster.
By the end of the 25-hour emergency, the recycling plant's two buildings and two neighboring businesses were destroyed.
According to an Ohio State Fire Marshal investigation, the fire began when an employee in the main building of the recycling plant loosened the lid on a 55-gallon drum containing magnesium waste, one of four on a single pallet. The employee then left with a forklift to get another pallet. When he returned, he found that the contents of the loosened drum were smoking.
Employees tried to smother the fire by shoveling factory flux, a heat insulator, on it. A Class D fire extinguisher containing Metal-X was also used. Thick black smoke drove the employees back as the fire spread to other nearby drums. Management evacuated the plant and contacted fire dispatch.
One week after the fire, agencies involved in the emergency operations met with the Ohio EPA to make plans for site cleanup.
Pre-planning and mutual aid assistance proved invaluable during the emergency, Chief Collova said. Eighteen fire departments, including the Cleveland Fire Department, provided equipment and/or personnel during the fire, with about 165 firefighters called to duty.
"In my opinion, preplanning remains the best way to prepare for an emergency, especially one as extreme as a magnesium incident," Chief Collova said. "Once you preplan and get that vital information, you can create a scenario based on what you could be faced with, then sit down in your training room and face your goal. You need to match that preplan with resources available through your mutual aid box alarm and utilize the incident command system.
"Beyond preplanning, take any opportunity to better familiarize firefighters with the plants in their area in person," Collova said. "Even though your fire prevention personnel are conducting the building inspection, have on-duty crews walk through with them. Let them talk to the people and ask questions. Let them get an idea of what the place is like."
Also establish a public information officer as soon as you're able to get correct information to the news media, he said.
Collova added that everyone who participated in the magnesium fire operation deserves special credit.
"The dedication between all the firefighters and the help of the chief officers who responded made this a successful operation due to the fact that no one was seriously hurt and the incident was contained as much as possible."